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How Establishments Get Established


Noreen Malone has a terrific piece on the merit myth. Let’s start with the fact that the statistics are brutal:

I thought about that when I read an interview that Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, gave to the Nieman Lab alongside Adrienne LaFrance, the magazine’s executive editor, who oversees the website. It was meant to be a discussion and celebration of the publication’s efforts to recruit and promote more women — which the magazine has done under Goldberg — but it went viral for the wrong reasons. Goldberg explained that there was one area in which it was difficult to achieve gender parity or racial diversity: print magazine cover stories, where, as the Nieman Lab pointed out, 11 of the last 15 Atlantic print issues have had covers authored by men.


You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

This is a systematic problem, of course, and plays out in many insidious ways (such as substantially under-reviewing women and justifying it through largely arbitrary distinctions about what is “literary” which are heavily tied to gender.) But, certainly, merit has nothing to do with it; the idea that no woman was available to do something better than, say, David Frum’s anti-immigration screed is silly on its face.

Malone also notes that a lot of this comes down to who editors and publishers feel comfortable gambling on:

The truth is that white guys have gambled on white guys forever; they gambled on him to write a cover story (here!) when he was in his 20s. Goldberg’s predecessor gave a young blogger, Derek Thompson, a big cover story in 2012. Goldberg may conscientiously acknowledge how a wider set of hires might change story selection, but the thing he doesn’t talk about is what those green writers — with the perspectives he knows he needs to include — might be giving him and his magazine: life, energy, something different than what’s come before. Trying someone new for a big cover story who mostly writes online doesn’t mean lowering standards. (As the editor of the Atlantic well knows because that’s where Ta-Nehisi Coates did his blogging before they put him in the magazine.) Instead, it can mean getting access to a new set of notions about what is central to the culture, which ideas and people to elevate, how to tell a story, and where to look for one. The chance to unearth The New, both in subject matter and writer — as the Atlantic did, of course, in publishing the essays of Coates; as it does today regularly all over its website and elsewhere in its pages — isn’t that the most exciting, rewarding, thing you can do as an editor? Isn’t it the best thing you can give your readers?


This is of course often true, and there’s virtually no better example of this than Goldberg’s own career: Before he was persuaded by David Bradley, the Atlantic’s then-owner, and Bob Cohn, its president, to take the job (instead of a number of external candidates who were — dutifully, it now seems in hindsight — women and people of color), he had been exclusively a writer (sometimes a blogger, no less) with no management experience. “In the end, the editor appointment was a harder call for Jeff than it was for Bob and me,” wrote Bradley in a memo to staff. He had recruited Goldberg as a writer from The New Yorker with a literal pony in 2007, and then gambled big on his potential less than a decade later, when he was over 50, an age at which it’s even harder to imagine that happening to a woman. Bennet, whom Goldberg replaced, is the son of former NPR president Douglas Bennet, and ultimately left the magazine because he was recruited to the New York Times by soon-to-be publisher A.G. Sulzberger, son of former publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Bennet replaced Andrew Rosenthal, son of former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal, as editorial page editor. Since joining the Times he has hired and promoted multiple women, multiple people of color, and one Bret Stephens; Bennet’s brother is running for president, and he is one of a handful of white men who seem likely to become executive editor when Dean Baquet steps down at age 65.

One of the most instructive examples of unjustified presumptions of white male competence was the Buruma/Ghomeshi incident at the NYRB. It’s not just that he decided to ignore his staff and publish a piece an offensive, intelligence-insulting piece wholly devoid of intellectual or literary merit and defended his decision with a painful series of own-goals. What’s particularly striking is that he landed one of the most prestigious jobs in American letters despite having no experience actually running a magazine. What credentials you need to be thought of worthy of having a chance taken on you vary dramatically based on social hierarchies and connections, and it’s absurd to pretend otherwise.

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